, December 2008
There is always a place even in a crowded historical market place for Schnabel’s Mozart performances, especially when they receive top quality transfers as here.
The Rondo is a post-War recording made in London in 1946. It’s a powerful example of sublimated expressive control, phrased with great purpose and refinement and leaving a considerable impression. It’s intelligently programmed as the solo centrepiece of an otherwise concerto disc.
K595 was recorded with Barbirolli and the LSO in May 1934. This was one of many concerto accompaniments that Barbirolli left in the early to mid thirties that so impressed the international virtuosi with whom he performed—Schnabel of course prominent among them. The list included Kreisler, Heifetz and Rubinstein. In truth his accompaniment here is not quite on the exalted level he furnished elsewhere. I’m probably one of the world’s indulgent admirers of the art of the portamento but even I began to baulk at the pervasive queasiness of the LSO string section’s mass use of it in the opening paragraphs of the work. I wish Willie Reed had not indulged it and that Barbirolli had not tolerated it so easily. A small point of performance style. Otherwise there is a fine balance between piano and orchestra even though the original recording was somewhat ‘cloudy’ and not ideal in that respect. Schnabel’s trills are occasionally rather uneven and he rushes, as he so often did, some of the passagework but this instability is not so disruptive and his direct and unmannered playing proves infinitely communicative and winning. The occasional orchestral untidiness in the slow movement is subservient to the soloist’s refined phrasing; the finale is spirited and engaging. Barbirolli recorded this concerto again when he went to New York with Casadesus but apart from the improved playing of the NYPSO over the LSO there’s less to recommend the later soloist over Schnabel.
The Concerto for two pianos sees Schnabel father and son together, this time with Adrian Boult taking time off from his BBC orchestra to direct the LSO. In the late 30s collectors had a choice between the Schnabels, the Iturbis and duo specialists Vronsky and Babin in this work. The Iturbis’ performance tended to be written off as rather superficial which is not something I found when I came to review its reissue on Ivory Classics. The Vronsky-Babin set, which I’ve not heard, was labelled ‘suave’ which in the context was pretty damning. If you’d plumped for the Schnabels, then, or indeed now, you’d find a well co-ordinated, fluent and finely textured performance well directed by Boult. Perhaps at the helm of his BBC band things would have been orchestrally tighter—the LSO was just past its best by this period.
Jonathan Summers’s notes are, once more, an asset and with those fine transfers this is a safe bet purchase.